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Papier-mache and plaster model of a May beetle.

Medical student Louis Auzoux was frustrated with the shortage of human corpses available for studying anatomy. Using his own secret papier-mâché mixture he developed 'dissectable' models, which could be used again and again. Later, he also created models of animals and plants.

Real corpses or models?

As a medical student in Paris, Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux (1797-1880) noticed that there was often a shortage of human remains available for doing human dissections. Dissections were an essential part of studying medicine. However, even if a body was available, it could only be used once before it began to decompose.

To deal with the shortage of bodies, Auzoux began producing accurate anatomical models that could be taken apart piece by piece.

The models were sturdy and inexpensive, especially when made with the secret papier-mâché mixture that Auzoux had developed. The mixture contained cork and clay as well as paper and glue.

Papier-mache and plaster model of a human, showing various layers of the head and torso.
Papier-mâché and plaster model of a human; made by Dr. Auzoux in 1848 (Wh.5893).

From wax to papier-mâché

Introducing papier-mâché as a modelling material was a radical change from earlier modelling techniques. In previous centuries, anatomists and artists made their anatomical models using wax.

While wax models could reproduce anatomical details very accurately, the material was very expensive and too fragile to be handled frequently because the wax would lose its shape.

Papier-mâché, on the other hand, was sturdy enough to produce detachable models that could be used again and again, at less than a tenth of the price of similar wax models.

Commercial success

With financial support from the French state, Auzoux founded a factory for producing anatomical models in his small hometown of St. Aubin d'Ecrosville in France. After a few years, the models became a commercial success, and were used by schools, universities and hospitals, as well as by private individuals who could rent models at low costs.

Responding to changing trends in scientific research and education, the company branched out into producing models of human embryos, animals and plants.

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Further reading

  • B. Grob, The World of Auzoux: Models of Man and Beast in Papier-Mâché (Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 2000).
  • A. B. Davis, 'Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux and the papier maché anatomical model', La Ceroplastica nella Scienza e nell'Arte: atti del I Congresso Internazionale Firenze, 3-7 Giugno 1975 (Florence: Olschki, 1977), pp. 257-279.
  • M. Lemire, Artistes et Mortels (Paris: Chabaud, 1990).
  • S. de Chadarevian and N. Hopwood (eds.), Models: The Third Dimension of Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

Anna Maerker

Anna Maerker, 'Dr. Auzoux's papier-mâché models', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008.

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